In Taiji, the fishermen say that dolphin tastes like venison or beef. But eaten raw with a dab of ginger and soy sauce, the glistening dark flesh resembles liver, with a coppery aftertaste that lingers on the roof of the mouth long after you've chewed it past your protesting taste buds. The ripe, tangy smell stays longer.
"I hate cutting up dolphin," says Toshihiro Motohata, who runs a nearby whalemeat shop. "The stink stays on you for days, even after several baths."
Dolphin-hunting season has arrived again in this sleepy harbour town. Perhaps 2,000 small whales and striped, bottlenose, spotted and Risso's dolphins have been slaughtered for meat that ends up on the tables of local homes and restaurants, and in vacuum-packed bags in supermarkets. By the end of March, many more will go the same way, part of what is probably the largest annual cull of cetaceans - about 26,000 around coastal Japan, according to environmentalists - in the world.
Six hours from Tokyo and accessible only via a coastal road that snakes through tunnels hewn from dense, pine-carpeted mountains, Taiji for years escaped the prying eyes of animal rights activists, but the isolation has been abruptly ended by the internet and the cheap rail pass. A steady trickle of foreign protesters - most Japanese people know little about the tradition - now arrive in the rusting town square to cross swords with the local bureaucrats and the 26 fishermen who run the hunt.
Taiji's notoriety has grown, fuelled by gruesome videos of the dolphin kill posted on YouTube, and by criticism from celebrities such as the American actors Joaquin Phoenix and Ted Danson and from high-profile environmentalists, and tensions have sharpened. Protesters have repeatedly clashed with the fishermen. Nets and boats have been sabotaged, activists arrested and several environmental groups have been effectively banned from the town.
Foreigners now almost inevitably mean trouble, especially when they come with cameras; local people speak with special venom of a BBC documentary that they say depicted them as barbarians. "One fisherman told me if the whalers could kill me, they would," says the best-known protester, Ric O'Barry, who trained dolphins for the 1960s television series Flipper. "But I always try to stay on the right side of the law. If I get arrested, I'm out of this fight."
Around Taiji and in the nearby towns of Kii-Katsura and Shingu, whale meat has been eaten for hundreds of years, claim local officials. Restaurants and shops offer dolphin and whale sashimi and humpback bacon, along with tuna and shark fin soup. A canteen next to the Taiji Whale Museum, where dolphins and small whales are trained to perform tricks for tourists, sells minke steak, sashimi and whale cutlets in curry sauce, in a room decorated with posters of the 80 or so "cetaceans of the world" - whales, dolphins and porpoises.
According to Ikuo Mizutani, a local wholesaler, dolphin meat sells for about 2,000 yen (£9) a kilo, cheaper than beef or whale.
Unlike most Japanese children, who have no idea of what whale tastes like, children in Taiji know their cetaceans. "I don't like the taste of dolphin because it smells," says nine-year-old Rui Utani. "I prefer whale."
In the museum, out-of-towners are often stunned to learn of the local specialities. "I'm shocked," says Keiko Shibuya, from Osaka. "I couldn't imagine eating dolphin. They're too cute."
The hunts are notoriously brutal, and blue tarpaulin sheets block the main viewing spots overlooking the cove where the killings take place, to prevent photographs being taken. Beyond the cove, small boats surround a pod of migrating dolphins, lower metal poles into the sea and bang them to frighten the animals and disrupt their sonar. Once the panicking, thrashing dolphins are herded into the narrow cove, the fishermen attack them with knives, turning the sea red before dragging them to a harbourside warehouse for slaughter.
The fishermen, who consider dolphins just big fish, like tuna, are bewildered that anyone would find this cruel, and describe the protesters as extremists. "If you walked into an American slaughterhouse for cows, it wouldn't look very pretty either," says one, who identifies himself only as Kawasaki. "The killing is done in the open here, so it looks worse than it is." Most of the fishermen are descended from families that have been killing and eating the contents of the sea around Taiji for generations, and reject arguments that dolphins are "special". Says Kawasaki: "They're food, like dogs for the Chinese and Koreans."
Mr O'Barry claims, however, he was told in private by town officials that tradition is not the real reason for the hunts. "It's pest control," he says. "They want to kill the competition for the fish. That's unacceptable. These animals don't have Japanese passports, they belong to the world. They're just trying to get around this town and these 26 guys."
He calls the town "schizophrenic". "It's as pretty as a 1950s postcard, and the people are so friendly, but this secret genocide takes place every year."
The schizophrenia is sharpest, say activists, in the Taiji Whale Museum, where tickets for whale-watching trips in dolphin-shaped boats are sold, while the non-performing animals bump up against each other in a tiny concrete pool. The trainers here help sort the "best-looking" dolphins from the kill, and train them for use in circuses and aquariums across Asia and Europe.
The museum recently made the world's science pages when fishermen handed over a dolphin with an extra set of fins, possibly proving that they once had legs and lived on land. But Mr O'Barry says the story had a dark side. "The Japanese media didn't report that this particular dolphin was taken away from her mother. The mother's throat was slit and she was butchered in the Taiji slaughter house along with more than 200 other bottlenose dolphins."
The bitter controversy over what fishermen in Taiji and other Japanese ports take from the sea is salted with nationalism, one reason why they are backed to the hilt by the Tokyo government. In a country that produces just 40 per cent of its own food, fisheries bureaucrats bristle at "emotional" lectures from Western environmentalists, and amid an intensifying fight for marine resources, they are determined not to yield. For some, cetaceans are a line in the sand. "If we lose on whales, what will happen next?" asks Akira Nakamae, deputy director general of Japan's fisheries agency.
Next, it seems, is tuna, a staple of the Japanese diet in contrast to whale, which is a minor delicacy now eaten by a tiny proportion of the population. Japan's voracious appetite for tuna shows no sign of abating: a report last December claimed that Japanese fishermen poached a staggering 100,000 tons of the coveted southern bluefin tuna above quota between 1996 and 2005.
The Taiji fishermen deny they are taking too much from the sea. "We would be cutting our own throats," says Kazutoyo Shimetani, sales manager of the dolphin hunters' cooperative in Taiji. The cooperative - essentially a closed guild - says it rigidly controls fishing, limiting dolphin hunting to just 26 of the town's approximately 500 fishermen.
Taiji's growing notoriety has widened the cultural gulf between the town and the rest of the world, and most senior officials will no longer talk to Western journalists. But the head of the local board of education, Yoji Kita, who lectures on whaling to schools and colleges, agrees to a brief, testy meeting.
Like many in the town hall, he is defensive, accusing Westerners of failing to understand or explain Japan's culture to their readers, and of inciting protesters, but he is guardedly polite - until a question about the dangerously high mercury levels detected in whales and dolphins. "Why pick on those as reasons to stop eating them?" he asks, voice rising. "The whole environment is poisoned. There is no point in talking to you, because you don't want to listen. That's just racism," he says, standing to terminate the interview.
"It's very difficult," sighs a clerk in the museum. "The town leaders are just so tired of having to deal with this. They want it to go away."
There seems little chance they will get their wish, despite an offer to fund the retirement of the dolphin hunters from a US environmental group. Few in the town took the offer seriously, and the fishermen say they would in any case reject it. "Why should we give up our tradition on the orders of somebody else?" asks Mr Shimetani.
In a world racked by wars, greed and environmental destruction, the fate of a few thousand animals might seem small fry, but activists say the plight of the dolphins is connected to all three. "The dolphin hunt is a symbol of our utilitarian view of nature," says Mr O'Barry. "That we can use and abuse the sea. I honestly believe when the world finds out about this, it will be abolished. It can't possibly survive the light of day."
One man's campaign
Ric O' Barry is one of the world's best known environmentalists. A former US Navy diver, he later trained the five dolphins that played Flipper in the Sixties television series before turning against dolphin captivity in 1970. He has spent his life since as an animal rights campaigner and much of the past decade fighting what he calls the "secret genocide" of dolphins in Taiji, where thousands of the animals are killed between October and March every year. Mr O' Barry travels to the small port town several times a year to film the annual dolphin hunt for a coalition of environmental groups (at www.SaveJapanDolphins.org). He claims he is despised by officials at the town hall, trailed by goons, and harassed and threatened by whalers. "One fisherman down there told me if the whalers could kill me, they would," he says. "I was kind of flattered. They call me 'Samurai dolphin man', which shows that, at least, they respect me." Oddly, the first time the 67-year-old visited Taiji in 1975, he met the mayor and was given the keys to the town after leading a campaign against a US boycott of Japanese products led by anti-whalers whom he considered "racist". He still believes boycotts will not stop whaling. "Boycotts are completely useless because the Japanese people don't even know about this. They are a blanket condemnation of the Japanese people, and the dolphin hunt is led by just 26 fishermen."Reuse content